We commonly have new users mistakenly posting questions as answers. (I haven't counted, but as a mod, I think this is the most common not-an-answer that I delete.) This isn't that surprising, given the unregistered user UI. What can we do about this?

Before you answer, have a real look at how the site appears to everyone else. Today I am playing the part of the Unregistered User. Bear with me - I know this is a bit long.

I enter via a search engine, managing to find a related question. This is the first thing I see:

top of site UI boilerplate

At this point, I'm hoping the answer to my query is here, so I'm unlikely to pay much attention to the boilerplate at the top of the site. I skim down the page, eventually scrolling through several answers. It becomes clear that this is some kind of forum-like site - a bunch of people posted replies.

I get to the bottom, not having found an answer. But this isn't my first time on the internet. I know I can post things too, and aha, there's a box at the bottom of the page. Let's go!

answer UI

Okay, great. There's some stuff at the top, sure, but I know how to post stuff. And it's a little weird that this forum says "answer" instead of "reply", but those mean pretty much the same thing. Maybe I notice that it says not to ask for help, but I don't know, I want to reply on this thread so I may as well try, what's the worst that can happen? I write out an answer, and scroll down to actually post it.

signup/post as guest

Whoa. I just want to ask a little question, not get yet another account, I'll post as a guest. I'm just going to come back later and see the answers. Done!

Okay, so now everyone's thinking "why didn't you just use the Ask Question link"? There was even another copy at the bottom! Well, look where those links are. I even highlighted them to make them really easy to find:

top screen hint at bottom

Let's ask Unregistered User me what he thinks.

Wow, those are really far from everywhere I looked. I never even saw the first one - those are just the site navigation links, I skipped those when I was going to read all the posts. It's at the far right, too, the last place I'll read.

The second one is all the way at the bottom. I didn't even scroll far enough to see it at first, and when I did, it's at the end of a not too promising sentence. Try other questions about food safety? Meh.

As a footnote, when Moderator Jefromi comes along and explains and deletes, Unregistered User Jefromi does get notifications, if he happens to see that red circle pop up at the top (as long as his cookies weren't cleared). But at that point, the people who run the site are saying "you're doing this wrong, I deleted your post" so he's not too happy, if he even sees them.

So what can we do about this? Are there any simple changes we could make to make it more obvious how to ask a question? Keep in mind that we need to also not make it any harder to post answers, something we're trying to encourage with the existing UI. Also remember that people don't read too carefully (we know how to post on forums!) so modifying the "your answer" popup above the answer box is not the most promising approach.


What if we hid the box behind a button that reads "Answer this Question", and put another copy of the "Ask a Question" button next to it? Something like:

"[Answer This Question] or [Ask Your Own Question] if you're feeling inspired"

That way it looks less like a forum (posts stacked above one another with a reply box at the bottom), and gives the user two options of equal weight side by side so they can decide which one they really wanted. If they click Answer, it will open the text box inline, so they don't have another page load, but it makes them think about what they want to do before they start typing.

  • The main issue with this (not sure if it's a showstopper or not) is that it makes it slightly harder to post an answer. The inline answer box is definitely intended to make that as easy as possible. – Cascabel Sep 11 '13 at 20:01
  • @Jefromi True. But I think the problem is that it's TOO easy to write an answer when you should be asking a question. This could be put in place only if you're unregistered, of course, to avoid annoying regulars – Yamikuronue Sep 11 '13 at 20:22
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    Your reply suggests an interesting question: how many questions posted as answers do we have per actual answer by unregistered users. – Cascabel Sep 11 '13 at 20:23
  • Also, if by "hide" you mean "gray out the text box so it's obvious it's there", I like this a lot more. – Cascabel Sep 11 '13 at 20:27
  • As a newbie, still getting used to the site (but I think I'll stick around), I really like the modification suggested by @Yamikuronue – Jolenealaska Sep 28 '13 at 4:46

We could add another Ask Question link/button, possibly with slightly different phrasing. The two primary places I can see that might work are in the Your Answer popup above the answer box, or next to the existing Post Your Answer button:

question hint buttons

The one at the top would require some effort to cleanly work in; the hope would be that the combination of the box popping up and an obvious link/button containing the word "question" might be enough. The one at the bottom has the benefit of being in a place the user is already going to go look. It would however require some extra UI work, to get the user to add a title and tag(s) after they click it.

The important thing is that the user see it when they decide to write an answer. It's hard to stop users from getting to that point; it's in fact the main place the UI guides them, as part of encouraging answers.

We could also stick it in before the answer box ("Didn't find what you wanted? [ Post a question ]"), but that would be covered up by the Your Answer popup if they skip straight ahead to typing.


We could rework the top UI for unregistered users. The unobtrusive change would be move Ask Question to the left side, keeping the larger gap between it and the other menu options. More radically, it could be an entirely separate button. (User Experience already has this!! Admittedly it's still at the far right...) If the Ask Question button draws attention then it's more likely users will find it.

top section

Look at the things the menu is visually prioritizing over Ask Question: "Questions" (that's where we already are, and also I don't want to look at other questions), "Tags" (what?), "Tour" (boring!), "Users" (I don't care about them, I have a question)... and finally Ask Question.

Asking questions is one of the two main actions we want to encourage new users to take (along with posting answers) so it makes sense to give it due weight in the UI. Think about the current GMail UI - like it or not, there's no way you're going to miss that red compose button in the top left.

We have a banner on the homepage, yes, but people are most likely to find us via an existing question, and those people are the ones posting questions as answers, so we should help them on the page they're on.

I'm not sure this is quite as effective as modifying the answer UI, though, because a user will see it before they realize they want to post something, and the guidance is somewhat less clear. By the time they read through the existing answers, they may have forgotten.


Quite frankly, I think you're far too fixated on this non-"problem".

We have a tiny trickle of users who apparently can't find the massive frickin' "Ask Question" link at the top of the screen, nor do they see the big bold "Your Answer" heading above the text box.

You tell us a whole story from the user perspective but (a) you are not a typical user of the site and (b) it's nothing but speculation. Usability decisions should be based on data. Feature usage tracking. Eye-tracking studies. Even analytics on deleted answers and comments. Anything other than one wild guess heaped upon more wild guesses.

One thing you can count on, because it's pretty much a basic principle of psychology (c.f. "invisible gorilla"), is that people will only see what they expect to see or what they're already looking for. They come to this site thinking "oh a forum, I know how to do forums" and ignore literally everything in their path except what looks like the usual forum stuff. I don't believe that putting in more visual cues will change anything at all. Even if you did something like hiding it all behind a button, it would just inconvenience the 99% of users who aren't oblivious and do nothing about the 1% that are, because to them, it still works exactly the same way as a discussion forum, many of which have that exact same gateway button.

Cripes, there are even users who try to ask new questions by editing existing answers. You can't reach these people with extra text or bigger buttons - they're wearing blinders.

If you really wanted to force users to stop trying to use the site like a discussion forum, you'd have to make it look and feel and act completely different from a discussion forum. Take away everything familiar. Have none of the usual terminology or affordances. Completely disrupt people's considerable spatial memory and pattern-recognition abilities. And it would almost certainly work at forcing users to learn how to use the site properly. The downside is that we would have about 8 users.

Personally, I don't think it's a frequent enough occurrence to merit any UI changes, especially the sorts of clumsy changes made under the almost-always-false pretense that the information just isn't easy enough to find and advocates putting more clutter up. Most if not all of these questions-posted-as-answers (or suggested edits) aren't nearly clear enough to be standalone questions anyway. Just let them die with dignity. We're not so starved for questions that we have to try to recover every. single. possible. post. It's just. not. important.

  • I handle multiple of these flags a week. It's on the same order as the number of new users who actually do find the Ask Question button. (It's also way, way larger than the suggested edits thing.) We don't need eye tracking studies to know that people are having a problem figuring out how to ask a question. – Cascabel Sep 12 '13 at 0:01
  • And I know people don't read or see much besides what they expect to see, and that more clutter is bad, and so on. Those are reasons why this is nontrivial to fix, not why we shouldn't even try. If there is a way to fix this by doing something simple - perhaps one of the suggestions above, perhaps something else - then why not do it? Sure, half the new user questions are bad. If they get posted as questions, we can still close them, instead of people flagging and mods deleting. But the half that are good are more questions for us, and more people helped. I don't see the problem with that. – Cascabel Sep 12 '13 at 0:03

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